The forgotten story of the abandoned children of La Petite Roquette

On Sunday, the City of Paris will inaugurate a plaque in memory of the child prisoners of Petite Roquette, where hundreds of minors have lived in inhumane conditions for decades.

Today, the joyful cries of the children mingle with the songs of the birds. At the entrance of this park located rue de la Roquette, in the eleventh arrondissement of Paris, a fountain and flowers, further on a basketball court and imposing games where the little ones and their parents meet after school. and neighborhood teenagers. Few know that the wooded alleys of this square were once covered with thick dark walls that housed the prison of Petite Roquette. Built by the architect Hippolyte Lebas and counting nearly 500 cells, it was opened in 1836. Located near the Grande Roquette prison, which housed those condemned to death who were soon to be guillotined, the Petite Roquette received within it thousands of people. ‘children, some of whom were barely 6 years old, for nearly a century.

At the time, France was not yet concerned with juvenile justice. Children, whether they are simple vagabonds, orphans, street musicians, whether they have stolen a piece of bread to survive hunger or whether they are part of the Apaches (those delinquents from the suburbs who frighten Parisians), are at the time judged as adults. Worse still, hundreds of innocent people who do not meet their parents’ expectations are sent to prison by the simple signature of a judge, for “paternal correction”.

A bag on your head to go out

At the time, Petite Roquette was considered to be the best for the State, a model center. The discipline is carried out with an iron fist. There, there is only silence. The detained children are alone in their cells and are prohibited from making noise. As only meal, a broth and a ball of dry bread is served to them. Their days are only dedicated to work and sleep. The organization is millimeter there. Everything is done so that none of the young prisoners cross paths, the government being convinced that a simple glance can lead them into crime. When they go out for a walk, once a day, the boys are locked between the stone walls of a small courtyard, each in his own.

The Petite Roquette cellar walk is here represented on an engraving by Felix Thorigny. © Bianchetti / Leemage Leemage via AFP

Once a week, as they prepare to attend mass, a bag is put over their faces to avoid contact with others. And in the prison chapel, the isolation continues. Each prisoner is installed in a wooden box. To constant hunger is added the freezing cold. The prison is not equipped with electricity. In winter, the temperatures barely allow us to survive. At La Petite Roquette, the mortality rate reaches 12% per year.

“If you had just spent the seven months I just spent …”

“Dear mother, you don’t think about the boredom I’m going through. I have just spent a sad winter after having spent a sad summer and I will spend another sad summer, locked up in a poor cell like a wild beast, ”writes the young Armand, 17, in a letter. But this mail will never reach his mother. Like dozens of other letters, this one was intercepted by the prison administration, which tries to hide the real living conditions in which the children find themselves. It was only years after the establishment was closed that these letters were discovered, in a trunk found in the barn of a house in Normandy. “If you had just spent the seven months that I just spent. Seven months, half the time without seeing the day lying with shackles on your feet, that’s where you would say to yourself, eagerly, a letter. You cannot imagine what boredom pushes to do things, sometimes in the cell, I get bored and I start singing. What do I gain from it? I win that I am punished more ”, continues Armand.

Confirmation of detainees from La Petite Roquette, again separated from each other.

Confirmation of detainees from La Petite Roquette, again separated from each other. © Bianchetti / Leemage Leemage via AFP

In 2019, these poignant words, witnesses of a past that the city tried to stifle, were read by young actors in the documentary “La Petite Roquette, the prison of cursed children”. The writer and poet Jean Genet, born of an unknown father and abandoned by his mother at 7 months old, was himself imprisoned at the age of 15 at Petite Roquette, before being sent to a prison farm colony in Mettray, in Indre-et-Loire, in 1926. He will speak about it years later, in his semi-autobiographical work, “The Miracle of the Rose”. In these juvenile prisons, some of which work directly with La Petite Roquette – like the one in Gaillon in the Eure region – children work the land, break stones, wait until night falls to finally hope for a little respite. The children’s prison remained open until 1929, before being replaced by a prison for women. La Petite Roquette was destroyed in 1974.

The entrance to the square de la Roquette.

The entrance to the square de la Roquette. © Photo12 / Gilles Targat / Photo12 via AFP

Sunday, for the first time, the fate of children will be honored in front of the square de la Roquette. A plaque in their memory will be inaugurated in the afternoon. “In this prison hive of nearly 500 cells, thousands of minors, children and adolescents have been detained in inhuman and degrading conditions,” writes the City Hall of the eleventh on its site. The documentary “Les enfants maudits” is broadcast at the town hall on Thursday at 7 pm, in the presence of the director Cyril Denvers. Of the old prison, there is only one gate left, the old entrance located rue de la Roquette.

Any reproduction prohibited